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Commercialisation, Hybridisation, and Globalisation: How Geography is Challenging the Graffiti Subculture

Commercialisation, Hybridisation, and Globalisation: How Geography is Challenging the Graffiti Subculture

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kyra Reynolds. Originally submitted for Geography at None, with lecturer Paul Dunlop in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kyra Reynolds. Originally submitted for Geography at None, with lecturer Paul Dunlop in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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Commercialisation, Hybridisation, and Globalisation: How Geography is Challengingthe Graffiti Subculture
This paper, following an exploration regarding graffiti‟s place within the sphere of cultural
geography, examines the challenges that geography itself enforces on the graffiti subculture. This isachieved via an examination firstly of the motivations prompting membership within the apparentanti-establishment of graffiti culture, before delving into a discussion which unveils the impacts of globalisation, hybridisation and commercialisation. The research contributes to contemporary
developments within the field of cultural geography by adopting Lorimer‟s (2005) recent „more thanrepresentational‟ approach, thereby addressing the need to m
ove away from simple description of themateriality of cultural products towards the meaning attached to such entities. Methodology wasentirely comprised of secondary resource consultation via the procedure of content analysis in order togarner the main themes associated with the evolution of the subculture in question. The author arguesthat the subculture has lost sight of its initially inspirational message via tactics employed by thehegemonic capitalist and consumer culture, whilst also being aided in its demise by the expandingnumber of diffusion platforms including that of cyberspace. The paper provides a revealing insight
into the power mobilized by societal elites who impose the hegemonic „normative geographies‟ of what is to be viewed as „in place‟ and „out of place‟
, thereby turning society into a mass of human
„sameness‟. It is hoped that the paper will inform civil society of the asymmetrical power structures
 and spatial processes to which it has fallen victim, and thus inspire desires to resist such culturalimposition in favour of a society rich in cultural autonomy and diversity.
 Key Words:
cultural geography, graffiti,
„more than representational‟,
globalisation, hybridisation,commercialisation
Introduction- Graffiti as Cultural Geography?
By crossing the line of unorthodoxy you [graffiti] made doxa and hegemony visible for what it was- not the
way of being, but simply
way of being
(Anderson, 2010:60- emphasis in original)
“In an era of massive social change and unmitigated erasure of the past, one small feature of man‟s
heritage is making a resurgence
” (Ley and Cybriwsky
, 1974) - the graffiti subculture. In order tounderstand the place of this microcosm within the broader context of cultural geography, one will first
need a brief understanding of „the cultural turn‟ that has graced the field.
Moving beyond empiricistenvironmentally determinist schools of thought inspired by Darwinist theories, and the notion of supraorganism, advocators of environmental possibilism such as Paul Vidal de la Bache, Scot Patrick Geddes and Richard Hartshorne transgressed the original beliefs that humans were passive agents incultural creation. Rather, they are the agents in its formation and to a certain extent, the environmentin which they reside (Anderson, 2010). Carl Sauer via extensive study of rural Latin Americanlandscapes in the 19
and early 20
century proposed the idea of the cultural landscape as
which could be understoo
d as a „
‟, inscribed with the „traits‟ accumulating with the passage
of time, thus serving to communicate the presence and legacy of existent cultural groups (Anderson,2010). As Battista
et al
(2005:448, cited in Anderson, 2010) state:
person leaves some residue
of their passing and their actions on their physical surroundings”, and with graffiti this is highly
visible in the colourful tags, throw-up pieces that are scrawled across every day spaces. Significantrestructuring of the global economic and political situation in the 1960s via colonial independenceexposed
s approach as lacking the capacity to fully acknowledge such transformations, let alone
engage with “culture as [being] brokered through struggle between competing social actors”
(Anderson, 2010:27). Hence, via an amalgamation of various social sciences disciplines,representational cultural geography was founded and cultural products were no longer the cornerstoneof study. Rather, focus expanded to the meanings that were assigned to such entities. Indeed, visible
urban culture such as graffiti is a ceaseless “interplay between the seen and unseen,
the visible and the
(Dunne and Lerkenfield, 2009:3). Power relations were rapidly acknowledged as a keyfactor in permitting landscape representation of certain meanings at the expense of others. Mostrecently, Lorimer has coined a
(2005:84) discourse. The latter will serveas the basis for this paper.
Using the „more
-than representational
approach, not only will the material manifestations of graffitior their inherent meanings be explored but so too, the emotions and experiences encountered by thesubcultural members. Particularly interested in the symbolic meanings of the sub
culture‟s rituals to
participants, cultural resistance and globalising impacts
on one‟s „sense of place‟, one will explore the
transformations of motivation amongst the subcultural members over time in response to the great
„Cultural War of the Walls‟, a phenomenon which has manifest itself within
urban landscapes as aresponse to alternative voices. This includes an exploration of the tactics employed by the dominantcultural groups to eradicate alternative urban mappings, the ease of communication with the rise of the
„global village‟, as well as graffiti‟s
integration into the „cultural economy‟, before concluding that
the powerful political message of the culture has fallen by the way-side as it too has succumb to thepower of corporate and consumerist ideology-
“ H
aving emerged in the Bronx....[
subsequent rise to international prominence has been shaped by the tension between its status associo-political commentary and its status
as a commodity” (
Ross, 1992: 60- quoted in Mitchell, 2003).
Origins and Initial Diffusion- Born from the Ashes
“Kids are
largely walled in and boxed out- It is in these inopportune and repressive environments that graffiti isborn
(Ferrell, 1995:74).
Modern hip-hop graffiti grew out of the economic, ethnic and political inequalities in the hearth of New York from Black neighbourhood hip-hop cultures
in the early and mid-1970s, as part of alarger, home-grown alternative youth culture that included new forms of music (rap, sampling,scratching etc.
) and dancing” (Ferrell, 1995:27)
. However, graffiti is certainly not a new phenomenon,a fact to which the wall writings of Pompeii, the Roman Empire, ancient Greece, the Mayan Empire,the 9
century Viking ventures to Ireland, and Egyptian monuments testify (Reisner, 1971). Later,with an explosion of the human population following the Second World War, conditions declined inconjunction with industrialisation, whilst the rate of crime escala
ted and „white flight‟ to the suburbs
ensued. Oppressed African-American youth were subject to limited resource access, both economicand political, and were forced to appropriate the act of wall inscription to literally inscribe the virtualself into physical existence. Public attention to graffiti took place in the early 1970s, in a period when
„tagging‟ (the act of inscribing
one‟s name and street number) exploded in New York and
Philadelphia (Cresswell, 1991). Governmental organisations as well as local media, (notably the NewYork Times) became rapidly aware of such activity, and in July of 1971, TAKI 183 (a Greek youth
named Demitris) became a „folk hero‟ in the graffit
i subcultural realm, whilst also succeeding intriggering an intense rate of diffusion via an article published in the aforementioned newspaper.Methodological elaboration occurred when broad-tipped pens were superseded by spray cans by 1972,and by 1973, the New York Times had
 publicised the shift from simple „tagging‟ and „throw
ups‟ (aslightly more elaborate from of tagging) to an increasingly „irksome‟ type of graffiti, namely the
 painting of entire subway cars “in graphic multicolour designs still based around a single name suchas TOMCAT or KOOK” (Cresswel
l, 1991:3). Many attempts to eradicate the subcultural practiceresolutely failed (explored later) and by 28
March 1973, the New York Times once again publishedfigures stating that 63% of subway cars, 46% of buses, and 50% of public housing projects had beenmarked (Cresswell, 1991:3). Major cultural and geographic expansion took place with the onset of further popular culture as well as punk, metal and hip-hop movements of the 1980s, aided largely byMTV and other news bodies, and causing the expansion of the subculture largely by means of theNew York subways. The marking of mobile public space allowed subcultural members
to make a
claim to the world outside the ghetto” (Ley and Cybriwsky, 1974).
Films such as „Wild Style‟ and„Beat Street‟
were major disseminators, and indeed Elfein (1998) believes these productions were
central to the subculture‟s introduction to German streetscapes.
As will be acknowledged later in thispaper, the contribution of globalisation has permitted the presence of graffiti not only throughoutcities in the United States, but also Central and South America as well as Europe, New Zealand,Australia and Japan (Alonso, 1998; Chalfant and Prigoff, 1987). The subculture has quite literallygraced every country on the world map.
Identity, Belonging, Expression
“Our human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our taste, our values, our aspirations, and evenour fears in intangible form” (Lewis, 1979:12
- quoted in Mitchell, 2000).
Youth cultures are those which assume a state, like their actors, that is somewhat
in that thelives of these adolescent
 beings are “momentarily negated, suspended or abrogated
, and the future hasnot yet begun, an instant of pure potentiality when everything, as it were, trembl
es in the balance”
(Turner, 1982: 44). As such, the spaces available for occupation are scarce and so the street becomesthat onto which identity can be ascribed and belonging sensed through the act of writing. Yet, adultreclamation lingers as a constant threat (Matthews
et al
, 2000). Graffiti serves as a subculture topermit the establishment and expression of identity and belonging for displaced youth. As West 7proclaims:
“Graffiti art was a way to beat your own chest in the urban jungle and let the
world know that you were a part of 
it and not just another face in the crowd. That‟s why it was practiced initially by individuals in their early to pre
teens. We had identities to prove”
(West, 2007- quoted in Carrington, 2009:417).
Mac Donald (2001) effectively documents how graffiti, through the development of alternative identities (in the form of tag names), permits the construction of a virtual self in theexploration of identity. Indeed Erikson (1968:130
) holds that “in a jungle of human existence
there isno feeling of being al
ive without a sense of identity”
(Othen-Price, 2006), particularly for adolescents
who are experiencing a state of „Temporary Outsidership‟ (Briggs, 2002).
 Henri Lefebvre (2003:19) reveals that the urban arena is also a space for communication, aplace to talk,
 just as it is the medium for the sharing of words and signs, “a place where speech can become „savage‟ and, by escaping rule
s and institutions, inscribe itself on walls
. Interestingly, thesubculture, when not aimed to transmit a message to the public outside the graffiti twilight zone, usesa unique subcultural language that is embedded with spelling misrepresentations,
special „lexion‟ of text and numerical characters that make it legible only to the „
erground‟ sub
cultural world. Thisaspect of internal peer communication reflects the assertion by Jenkin
et al
(2006) that the culture isparticipatory, with low entry restrictions to its values of artistic expression, mentorship and socialcohesion. It is by this nature that one finds with relative ease the aspect that deems this community

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